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François Boucher: The Triumph of Venus (1740)
"The value we actually bring is always a solo contribution …"

In the very late sixties, I was fortunate to attend Donovan's Seattle performance of his Gift From A Flower To A Garden Tour. Set in the voluminous, boxy Seattle Center Arena, the venue was better suited for basketball than for a folk concert, but there I was, sitting up near the nosebleed section almost as far as I could have possibly been from the stage, waiting for my favorite recording artist to take the surprisingly sparse set. It was decorated with a very large pillow and a microphone boom surrounded by fresh flowers. Nothing else. In an age now where even individual performers travel with a fleet of semis carrying their stage set, such an arrangement seems unthinkable. Now, a proper performance stage seems to require huge video screens and probably parabolic projection equipment to show movies on the ground fog produced by silently whispering machines just off stage. Further, risers must also be provided to elevate the drum sections and the horns, not to mention the space for the piano, bass, and multiple accompanying guitar players. No, the simple pillow surrounded by cut flowers just would not do today.

That was the best danged concert!
I saw him a few years later at a much better venue, the venerable old beaux arts Philadelphia Academy of Music theater, but that show was much more heavily produced for his Cosmic Wheel tour. I much preferred the simpler production I'd witnessed in Seattle, where it was just him and his guitar and voice, sometimes accompanied by a non-intrusive background flute. That sound seemed pure and undistorted and in no way over-promoted. It was just what it was and would doubtless have been easily drowned out by very much crowd or background noise. In other words, definitely not Las Vegas material, not anything compatible with a double scotch and soda with a twist of lemon, like a jazz trio's set might have been. It's Production seemed non-existent, but it might have been the most skillful I've ever witnessed and also the last I ever saw like that outside of a few open mic performances, some of which I performed myself, for Donovan's gutsy Production inspired every performance I ever attempted thereafter. I still figure that a performance really should be capable of standing on its own, and while accompaniment might be nice, it's really nothing like essential if the underlying melody and lyric are sound.

That said, nobody ever expects a single acoustic jazz performer, and many genres seem to insist upon heavy Production to even exist. (Notice how I'm not mentioning the personally reviled Disco in this description, a genre that's 99.999% Production and not quite .001% content.) To my mind, Production tends to be the downfall of live performance. Last night, The Muse and I went to see perhaps the most competent performer in the business, James Taylor, a man who single-handedly defined a major thread of the late century recording industry. Many of his recordings exhibit rather heavier than necessary Production, but more seem sparse, nearly empty of the usual unnecessary embellishments, essentially just his voice and his guitar, masterfully combined. For me, these were his best recordings. Listening to his albums was always a sublime experience of perfect lyrics and clever accompaniment interspersed with over-produced numbers. I'd cringe through the over-produced tracks to revel in the seemingly more Homemade ones, those that could have just as successfully been recorded in a single take on the simplest of recording equipment to showcase his most remarkable talent, no embellishment required.

Embellishment was evident as the roadies set up the stage for James' performance last night. The stage itself seemed worthy of a full Broadway stage. It featured projected video of cartoon flowers, but no simple piles of freshly cut ones. The Muse counted eighteen guitars in racks on the stage before the opening act's (Jackson Browne) performance started. More were used in the actual performance. I felt at times as though I'd fallen into one of the peripheral circles of Hell where Production rules over all performance. Not even the simplest tunes were allowed to exist all by themselves. Each received the full treatment: drums played by the reigning master in the business, an obligatory guitar solo provided by the most experienced player in existence, a saxophone solo, too, and why not a trumpet and piano, not to mention the line of backup singers, each seemingly in battle against a perfectly adequate simplicity that could not have been nearly as showy. I quickly caught on that this would not be a James Taylor performance, but a Broadway-quality Production of a James Taylor concert, bordering on becoming a parody of itself, of its subject, of its object, of its purpose.

The couple seated just in front of us frequently felt overwhelmed and apparently needed to exhibit some public St Vitus' dance in response to something coming from the stage, as if they were attending a revival meeting and the spirit of some lord or savior had managed to insinuate itself inside them. They moved in tongues. I tried to peek around and through them, interested in the fretwork James was producing, not quite lost in the surrounding Production. I ached for him to excuse the entourage, to sit himself down upon one of the half dozen short stools set upon the stage and share a little something from his heart unembellished with any scene. This was not to be. I caught glimpses of what it might have been during introductory sequences, before the company joined in. I knew he had it in him. I wondered why he held that private part so closely, why, if he'd gone to all the trouble to organize that tour, he felt the need to not quite fully show up for the performance.

I think we often feel as though we have to produce whatever we're performing, lest our audience catch glimpses of the genuine, slightly embarrassing self we know best peeking through. Perhaps we lack belief in the simple fact that we're pretty much transparently naked either way and so we try to distract attention away by offering sparkling accompaniments with our performances and plays. Our audience sees us anyway. We're each Homemade and not really competing here for most overwhelming Production. The value we actually bring is always a solo contribution, performed without a costume or the backup of undoubtedly the finest bass player in the world. Our performances seem just fine without those distractions, or could be. I imagine how much easier my life would have been had I mostly shown up with just a large pillow and some freshly cut flowers as my Production.

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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